I had a friend, who refused to speak. At least that’s what I thought. I thought she ‘choose’ not to speak. She loved her brother a lot and would only talk to him and that too in whispers. I found her intriguing. I mean how can someone be so shy?
Her consequences of not speaking were harsh. She was repeatedly punished and what not. I didn’t understand why she was choosing this. And later on, I discovered, it wasn’t a choice. Somehow she knew what she wanted to say but she just couldn’t. It’s like that nightmare, where we want to talk but somehow aren’t able to. The words are right there but it’s like our minds have forgotten how to make the sounds.
My friend learned sign language and it was like she had suddenly gotten a boost of confidence. Her best friend studied sign language as well to be able to communicate. They would talk in hand signs and laugh. I had never seen her so happy before. Previously, she was always alone hiding in corners as if she was scared of getting noticed. She always had this blank expression on her face like she was frozen in time. After some years, she shifted schools and ultimately, we all went our separate ways.
But like they say, the world is a small place. I met her again- now 21. I spoke to her, expecting her to write something down on a paper or show gestures as a reply. But to my surprise, she spoke. So many years we had been together and this was the first time, I heard her voice. For starters, her voice was beautiful, gentle and soft. She had apparently started speaking again. But still at times, even after so many years, sometimes she freezes and goes back to being a mute when she’s being yelled at or if there is some crisis.
What my friend suffered from is called Selective Mutism. This is one of the most misunderstood disorders. These people suffer in silence, literally. This is not something a person is born with like most disorders, it is triggered by some trauma or repeatedly being shamed and humiliated when they try to articulate. It usually befalls at the age of 5 or older. It can persist till adolescent years. It doesn’t end there, even adult cases have been reported.
This disorder at it’s core is an anxiety disorder. It may be present with some sort of phobia or even generalized anxiety disorder. Before the onset of this disorder, the child could have severe anxiety issues like separation anxiety, he may act out or throw frequent tantrums, crying, moodiness, sleep problems and even ‘extreme’ shyness.
It should be noted here that the child does not suffer from a language or learning disability. The failure to speak is not due to a lack of knowledge of, or comfort with, the spoken language required in the social situation. The only and MAJOR issue is the severe anxiety. So much, so that he can’t express himself in verbal speech.
Mutism is just another behavior a person is portraying. There are so many things going on underneath for someone suffering from Selective Mutism. These people usually also have, Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) in which people are highly sensitive to sounds, lights, touch, taste, and smells. Some children have difficulty modulating sensory input which may affect their emotional responses. SPD may cause a child to misinterpret environmental and social cues. This can lead to inflexibility, frustration, and anxiety.
The anxiety experienced may cause a child to shut down, avoid and withdraw from a situation, or it may cause him to act out, have tantrums and manifest negative behaviors like mentioned above.
This disorder does not go away on its own. If it is left untreated the person is likely to develop chronic depression and other anxiety disorders. There are a lot of treatments available which remove this disorder from its roots. Do not pressure the child to speak, understand that he is probably feeling as much frustration as you, if not more.